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Y Pwyllgor Cydraddoldeb, Llywodraeth Leol a Chymunedau

Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee

04/04/2019

Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol

Committee Members in Attendance

Gareth Bennett AM
Huw Irranca-Davies AM
John Griffiths AM Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor
Committee Chair
Leanne Wood AM
Mark Isherwood AM
Mohammad Asghar AM

Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol

Others in Attendance

Andrew Meredith Arweinydd Tîm Gwasanaethau i Gwsmeriaid, Cyngor Bwrdeistref Sirol Caerffili
Customer Services Team Leader, Caerphilly County Borough Council
Dr Valerie Billingham Rheolwr Polisi ac Ymgyrchoedd, Age Cymru
Policy and Campaigns Manager, Age Cymru
Helen Powell Cynghorydd Cymorth Arbenigol, Rhaglen Cyngor ar Fudd-daliadau, Cymorth Canser Macmillan Cymru
Specialist Support Advisor, Benefits Advice Programme, Wales Macmillan Cancer Support
Huw Owen Swyddog Polisi, Cymdeithas Alzheimer Cymru
Policy Officer, Alzheimer’s Society Cymru
Kate Young Cyfarwyddwr, Fforwm Cymru Gyfan Rhieni a Gofalwyr Pobl ag Anableddau Dysgu
Director, All Wales Forum of Parents and Carers of People with Learning Disabilities
Martin Fidler Jones Swyddog Polisi, Gofal Canser Tenovus
Policy Officer, Tenovus Cancer Care
Rhys J. Page Uwch-reolwr Busnes, Cyngor Sir Caerfyrddin
Senior Business Manager, Carmarthenshire County Council
Samuel Stone Swyddog Materion Allanol, Cymdeithas Awtistiaeth Cymru
External Affairs Officer, National Autistic Society

Swyddogion Cynulliad Cenedlaethol Cymru a oedd yn bresennol

National Assembly for Wales Officials in Attendance

Catherine Hunt Clerc
Clerk
Claire Fiddes Dirprwy Glerc
Deputy Clerk
Megan Jones Ymchwilydd
Researcher

Cofnodir y trafodion yn yr iaith y llefarwyd hwy ynddi yn y pwyllgor. Yn ogystal, cynhwysir trawsgrifiad o’r cyfieithu ar y pryd. Lle mae cyfranwyr wedi darparu cywiriadau i’w tystiolaeth, nodir y rheini yn y trawsgrifiad.

The proceedings are reported in the language in which they were spoken in the committee. In addition, a transcription of the simultaneous interpretation is included. Where contributors have supplied corrections to their evidence, these are noted in the transcript.

Dechreuodd y cyfarfod am 09:30.

The meeting began at 09:30.

1. Cyflwyniad, Ymddiheuriadau, Dirprwyon a Datgan Buddiannau
1. Introductions, Apologies, Substitutions and Declarations of Interest

Welcome, everyone, to this meeting of the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee. The first item on our agenda today, item 1, is introductions, apologies, substitutions and declarations of interest. We've had an apology from Carwyn Jones and Jenny Rathbone also, although Jenny may be able to join us later on. Are there any declarations of interest? No.

2. Ymchwiliad i Gynllun y Bathodyn Glas yng Nghymru—Cymhwystra a Gweithredu: Sesiwn Dystiolaeth 2
2. Inquiry into the Blue Badge Scheme in Wales—Eligibility and Implementation: Evidence Session 2

Then we will move on to item 2 on our agenda today, which is our second evidence session on our inquiry into the blue badge scheme in Wales: eligibility and implementation. I'm very pleased to welcome here today Martin Fidler Jones, policy officer for Tenovus Cancer Care; Samuel Stone, external affairs officer with the National Autistic Society; Helen Powell, specialist support advisor with the benefits advice programme for Wales Macmillan Cancer Support; and Huw Owen, policy officer with Alzheimer’s Society Wales. Welcome to you all, and thank you for coming along to give evidence to committee today.

Perhaps I might begin with some initial questions on eligibility criteria, starting with your views on extending the criteria for blue badges to include people with cognitive impairments and temporary conditions. Would you be in support of such an extension? Who'd like to start? Huw?

I'll start, Chair, yes. On severe cognitive impairment, absolutely. The big thing for us at Alzheimer's Society Cymru is ensuring that we've got equality of access to these sorts of services. We've seen through the consultation we did on the evidence pack we put together that, right across Wales, there is a huge variation, and we've heard stories of people getting blue badges first try where they've got severe cognitive impairment and various forms of dementia, and we've heard stories where people haven't been able to access them at all and they've had to go through lengthy appeals processes or they've just been turned down outright and then just don't want to go through the hassle again. So, any form of extension to cover severe cognitive impairment would be high on our list, yes.

Thank you, Chair. From Tenovus Cancer Care's perspective, obviously, we are a cancer charity, and, hopefully, undergoing chemotherapy or radiotherapy should be a short-term issue, but it does have debilitating effects on people. Most acutely, of course, if you're undergoing chemotherapy or radiotherapy, your immune system is incredibly compromised and, as a result, taking public transport et cetera is not only physically demanding and difficult, as well as mentally, but also medically incredibly imprudent. So, by their very nature, we would actually classify undergoing chemotherapy and radiotherapy as a temporary condition, and therefore we would seek for that to be incorporated within the guidance.

There's other stuff as well. For people undergoing such a traumatic experience of having had a cancer diagnosis, that can understandably bring on certain anxiety issues and social anxiety issues and, as a result, having that safety net of having a blue badge and being able to park pretty close to where you're needing to go would be very welcome as well.

Okay. Don't feel that you have to contribute if your points have already been stated, but if you'd like to say anything additional that's fine.

I think Macmillan would be broadly supportive along the same lines as Tenovus, really. Anything that allows people to live life as fully as possible and as independently as possible would be supported.

Yes, just to echo, really, what's been said already. Obviously, the current system allows for people with a cognitive impairment to access the scheme, which enabled many autistic people to access it for the first time, and that's hugely welcome, but I think obviously some of the issues in the implementation have meant that the effect of that hasn't really been realised to its potential. So, some clarity in the system and then, again, possibly some further extension to take into account the wider needs of autistic people, rather than just, as it's currently detailed, whether or not they can currently plan or follow a journey without assistance—that would be welcome as well.

Thanks, Chair. I wonder if I could just extend the Chair's question a little bit, particularly to the issue of temporary or fluctuating conditions as well. If you have a situation where somebody—and I should probably declare an interest: I have ankylosing spondylitis, but it's the acute form rather than the chronic form, so it's well managed with anti-TNF medication on a regular basis and so on. But I do know people who have regular flare-ups with that, and it is totally debilitating—you can't lift yourself out of a chair. But how do you incorporate something like that, which is an acute and temporary and fluctuating condition—it could last for months or it could last for weeks—into a system where you're trying to identify who should have a blue badge and who should be designated and registered for preferential parking and so on? Sorry, I'm putting a real conundrum to you.

09:35

I'm happy to take that. I'm sure this is something that'll come out more specifically in the rest of the question session, but something—and I think we had a bit of a chat on this before we came in—that's really consistent throughout our written evidence to date as well is just the incredible variability between the 22 local authorities in Wales. To a certain extent, that's understandable when you have local democracy like that, but I think the bigger question, with respect to you is: if you were to have a system to incorporate that, how confident could you be that it was actually implemented?

We have had evidence from you, haven't we, that other medical conditions such as anxiety and incontinence, and other factors that affect mobility such as co-ordination, balance perception and safety, might be included in the eligibility criteria. So, I guess that would cover that issue, Huw.

The comment, I think, is pertinent because if you have a chronic condition of that nature, I suspect you'll fall within the 'severely disabled' category and you will qualify without a doubt. If, however, you have a fluctuating or acute condition or temporary issues with mental cognition and mental capacity and so on, how do you identify that? How do you put the standard approach? I'm not sure I know the answer to this, but it is, rather than those who would qualify automatically, those ones that fluctuate over time.

I think the benefits system deals with that, in terms of qualification for the personal independence payment or attendance, on the basis of 'most of the time'.  So, it looks at the percentage of time over the course of a month or a year or whatever that you experience the difficulties in an acute period, for example, and then, if it's most of the time, they would go with an award.

Yes. So, would you have confidence, on that basis, that that would capture the sorts of conditions that you've just been talking about?

Yes. If you're talking about fluctuating conditions, I think it's probably reasonable to consider that, if they happen most of the time, you should qualify.

In the example that you gave, where you can have a flare-up that lasts for a month or two months, and then you might have two months where you have nothing, in terms of a qualification for a blue badge, the impact would be if it affected you most of the time.

Indeed. Sorry, I may not be making myself clear, but in the example that Martin suggested there, where you have somebody who's receiving chemotherapy, because of that, it's debilitating in itself—would that be recognised?

Yes, I think so.

And there's a great role, for example, for medical professionals here as well to certify somebody as undertaking that treatment. The issue that we have at the moment is that there is a huge variability across Wales as to whether or not that letter of authority, for want of a better phrase, is accepted. I don't want to put words into the other panellists' mouths, but I think most of us would welcome a greater role for medical professionals in certifying, rather than meeting a strict benefits-related criteria, for example.

Okay. Could I ask, as we've mentioned welfare benefits, whether you're content with the current relationship between welfare benefits and eligibility for a blue badge?

I think, for us, we see a disparity between autistic people being able to access benefits like PIP, for example, compared to those maybe with physical conditions. So, I think probably where you are at the moment is that an autistic person would automatically be at a bit of a disadvantage because of a lack of understanding in the benefits system about their needs in relation to their autism. So, the discretionary criteria captures some of the people that might fall outside of that, but I guess the question is: do you have faith that the PIP system is picking up the needs of autistic people? And we would say that we probably don't. But then, similarly, there are instances where the discretionary criteria also don't do that, and we'd want to see that improved across both.

09:40

I would agree with Sam exactly there. One of the quotes we were given by one of the carers we spoke to as part of the evidence we did for this reads thusly: 'X gets confused and disorientated. He could not walk 80m unaided as evidence in his assessment. He was asked to walk to a man about 15m away but returned to the assessor before he reached the man, as he'd forgotten what he was doing'. So, the gentleman in question can walk the distance, but before he gets to the end point his dementia means that, unfortunately, he can't remember why he's going to that end point. So, we find it incredibly inconsistent that some people will accept that as, 'Okay, that's valid, you can get the benefits, you can get the blue badge', and others won't, and that's a big, big problem for us.

I think, from Macmillan's point of view, the link to the benefits system is useful, but I think there definitely needs to be a discretionary element around it. And I think, worryingly, anecdotally we've heard from some of our advisers that the counselors might ask if you've made an application for PIP, and if the person says 'Yes, they have, and they've been turned down', then there's a very negative impact on their application for a blue badge. So, that is quite worrying. 

If I could just add to that, Chair, I think that we would certainly argue for the inclusion of—if you're in receipt of the higher rate of attendance allowance. Because although that itself doesn't have a mobility element, you're going to have some pretty acute mobility needs if you need that benefit. We've also had anecdotal evidence of a certain—I'm going to borrow from Little Britain—'Computer says no' attitude across certain local authorities, where if you don't meet those strict criteria that Helen just outlined, you're just declined, which does make a mockery of the discretionary nature of some of the elements, to be honest. 

Okay. Thanks for that. One further question from me before we move on. We had evidence from Disability Wales that there isn't good public awareness of the extension of the eligibility criteria for blue badges. Would you agree with that view? And, if so, any ideas as to what might be done to improve public awareness? 

I think there are two issues there for us. There's the awareness within the cohort of people who are entitled to a blue badge and don't know they're entitled to a blue badge, and for many of those it would be of huge benefit but they just didn't necessarily consider the fact that an autistic person would be eligible. And then you have the wider public awareness of hidden conditions and their eligibility to access a blue badge. You hear anecdotal stories of people being challenged because they have a hidden condition by other members of the public who think they're abusing the system, but actually they have a completely equitable right to use it.

One small thing, I think, that would make a big difference to that is just the imagery around the scheme. Obviously, it's associated with people with physical conditions, and the wheelchair emblem, both on the blue badge and on the parking spaces themselves, doesn't do any benefit for autistic people who are legitimately using a blue badge and facing that type of criticism and judgment. 

Is there general agreement with those points? Yes. Okay. Thanks very much. We'll move on to the assessment process. Oscar.

Thank you very much, Chair. Before I ask my assessment question, can I ask a question on criteria, please?

The question is to the panel. Good morning to you all. The thing is, there are certain cases—and we receive quite a lot in our constituency offices when they're rejected for blue badges—. There are certain people who are visually, actually, not able people, and some people who have fibromyalgia or back pain or problems like this, and they do get—. So, how are you actually differentiating the person who visually you can see is not fit enough and a person who has actually said he's got back pain or a doctor's note saying that the person is not fit in the long term, short term—various different points? The person who was testing this person in the consultation, they dropped a pen and said, 'Could you lift that pen?' and that person lifted that pen and was rejected because he could move because the back pain was—. Now, that sort of criteria they used in testing the person—. They're not medical people, they're just ordinary. They should be relying on the doctor's report or the consultant's that this person has got back pain, but that person was refused because of that lift of the pen, that he or she lifted the pen. So, how do you work out these things in your department, that a person—visually or not visually?

09:45

Oscar, was that assessment for a blue badge or was that for welfare benefits—

A blue badge, yes. The person was refused. So, what is your—?

Well, from our perspective, it's problematic because I think there's the issue of the competency and the training that the assessor has got—whether or not they have understanding and awareness of autism or other conditions as well and whether they're in a position to legitimately make that judgment. I think there's certainly an issue around whether or not they do have that knowledge and that understanding. And I think, more specifically for autistic people, when you're talking about the medical evidence then to back up their claim, it would be that, actually, if you're looking at evidence from a psychiatrist or psychologist, often the only experiences that an autistic person would have are through their assessment and diagnosis process. So, that could be five, 10 or 15 years ago and, actually, trying to get relevant evidence to back up their claim from a relevant professional that a local authority would look at and say, 'Well, yes, that's okay' is problematic. So, we'd actually be looking at any extension to the evidence that would be required to not just include medical professions but actually other people who are supporting that individual so that they can demonstrate their needs and how much they would benefit from it.

Okay. Thank you. Now I'll come to the assessment process. What are your views on the assessment process, particularly any inconsistencies across Wales?

I think the report that came back from our advisers is that there is a huge amount of inconsistency across Wales, really, both in terms of which forms are used, the length of the forms, who's required to sign them, what evidence you need to back that up. So, I think that is of great concern for us, really. We're concerned that the advisers—. Our advisers deliver across health board areas, so they obviously incorporate more than one local authority within that health board, so they have to deal with multiple systems at the same time, and that's quite complicated but, more than that, I think Macmillan has a concern that, if the person affected by cancer hasn't got an adviser or isn't getting advice, how are they in fact accessing it at all?

We would echo those points as well. And, as Helen just pointed out, both Macmillan and Tenovus Cancer Care have qualified advisers to assist our clients through that process, and one thing that Tenovus has—I'm sure Macmillan has the same—is we have to maintain a spreadsheet to track all this variability across the local authorities. Where you have one adviser who may be crossing boundaries, they already have to go through a filter process of, 'Okay, what's this process here in RCT or Caerphilly', for example; there will be variation amongst those. There's also the question, of course, as to whether certain people should be attending a physical place for assessment. My opening remarks were around compromised immune systems—going to a council's assessment centre isn't the best idea. So, how that can be shaped to be relevant to the person's diagnosis is one thing—I refer to my previous point as well around the role for medical certification rather than a tick-box exercise by local authority officers.

And, just to pick back up on Oscar's point previously about the visual element, that's part of a cultural shift I think we need to achieve in Wales and recognise that disability isn't always visually evident. And, of course, you can have a physical impairment, such as—. Well, you can be impaired physically, such as undergoing cancer treatment, and that not be screamingly obvious, but you are still incredibly vulnerable. So, how do you capture that? And I think part of the point about that is that the person in the wheelchair isn't the most obvious or relevant symbol nowadays.

I'd like to echo what Martin said there. For us, at Alzheimer's Society Cymru, the issue of hidden disability is a very, very important point. Because those of you who have done Dementia Friends will know that there are over 100 different types of dementia. Somebody with dementia—it could be you, it could be me, it could be you, Chair—it could be anyone. There is no picture of somebody with dementia, and we often find that when people with dementia go to apply for blue badges they're put through an assessment that was designed for people with physical disabilities that does not actively take into account their needs. So, somebody may have the ability to walk for a kilometre, but they can't get out of a car door properly because they don't have the space—a normal parking space isn't enough for them. Or they could not have the correct spatial awareness, so they may get out of a car in a car park and just not see the curb and trip, break their hip, cause some form of damage to themselves, and none of that is taken into account in the assessment process, we feel. We definitely believe it should be. It's something that—. Awareness of hidden disabilities has come on leaps and bounds over the past decade, but it's something that we need to do a lot more work on in Wales. We believe that the assessors should be trained a lot better to understand how some of these hidden disabilities work.

09:50

Thank you very much. Other stakeholders, such as Disability Wales, suggested that there are also inconsistencies in the renewal process of the blue badges. What are your views on that also?

We don't have anything specific to say other than, in the same way that the application process is flawed, I think it extends to renewal as well. Autism is a lifelong condition, so there's not really much to say—if you've been entitled to a blue badge at one point in your life, then, really, the chances are you're going to need that permanently. So, I think, again, it comes down to what was just said about the people who are making those decisions having that understanding of the nature of various conditions—making sure that autistic people, for example, don't have to keep proving the fact that they need something, when it's clear to see that it's something that is of great benefit and supporting them to access their community.

Do you use the same criteria when you do the initial assessment and all the renewals subsequently?

I don't have anything specific on that, I'm not sure, but, as far as we're aware, it should be. If you've accessed a blue badge initially, there shouldn't be any change in the criteria for an application.

We've had anecdotal evidence that people who have successfully applied in the initial phase for a blue badge have subsequently been turned down for renewal, without any particular change in their circumstances. It goes back to the point that Huw made earlier, that there needs to be a delineation between acute and chronic conditions because, of course, for cancer, there is an acute phase, but once you've, hopefully, beaten cancer from a medical perspective, there are ongoing and legacy mental health issues as well, akin to be post-traumatic stress disorder. But also, chemotherapy literally kills every cell in your body; it just attacks certain ones more vigorously than others. So, you have a chronic phase to that as well. So, whereas you may very well qualify for a temporary badge on an acute basis, to then be assessed on a chronic basis, potentially at a renewal stage, and potentially be turned down as well, does highlight some tensions within the system, I think.

Can I just—? I think there's a consideration of whether Welsh Government should look at perhaps strengthening the guidance and whether that could be informed by, perhaps, a deep-dive audit of what existing practices are, and looking to see what good practices are happening.

My final question, Chair, to the committee is: we have received evidence that suggests that the current assessment process follows the medical model of disability rather than the social model of disability. What are your views on that?

From our perspective, absolutely; I think that's a flaw. It goes back to what I said previously about the evidence that supports someone's application. Often, that clinical evidence can be really difficult to find, and it focuses on a person's deficits. Getting evidence from teachers, from social workers, from other professionals who are working with an individual will help to open up more opportunities for people to apply and be successful in obtaining a blue badge, and, by its very nature, it then helps them to be more active and involved in their communities, to get out more instead of the issues of social isolation. So, certainly, from our perspective, that would be one shift that could be made in terms of making sure that the guidance follows a much more social model rather than a medical one.

Thank you, Chair. I just wanted to follow up on a small point that Helen mentioned there about the deep dive into best practice. I wonder whether—if not now—you could consider letting the committee know where you think that there is currently exemplary practice, where the assessment procedures work well with GPs locally, work well with the local authority—localised or within a whole authority area—where it actually works, so you might be able to guide us, because that's quite an interesting idea of doing a deep dive to get under the anecdote and look at, 'Well, what does best practice look like?' Sorry, Chair. Is there somewhere you can suggest now?

No.

09:55

We've provided some examples within our written evidence—through you, Chair—that highlights some good and some not-so-good practice. We'd certainly be willing to write back to the committee with some exemplary conditions and also, potentially, what best practice would look like from our perspective.

That'd be great, and, obviously, if any of you were able to do that, it would be very useful. Mark.

Thank you. Under the social model, the term 'disability' is used to define the barriers for disabled people, rather than the condition or impairment they have, so, in a way, we shouldn't be talking about the hidden disabilities, because disability under the social model is what the person lives. The question is who we ask, what we ask them and how we ask them. I think—and you may have touched on this before, but the NAS evidence talked about not just the type of questions, but also how do we, particularly in terms of neurodiversity or cognitive impairment, first establish the communication needs of the individual, which might also differ; it's not just what and how you ask them, but it's the environment and preparation and transition.

I think Martin touched on that earlier in the case of whether or not attending an assessment centre at a local authority is going to be the best environment for someone. For an autistic person, absolutely, that might not be the best way for someone to understand that individual's needs, because, instantly, it puts them in a position where they're not comfortable—they don't want to be there, and, despite the fact that it would be for a benefit for them through a blue badge, it doesn't mean that that person is going to be comfortable in an environment like that. Similarly, as you mentioned, the forms and things, the language that's used, the very non-literal language, not very specific—I think a lot of it, again, is done very much with physical conditions in mind. Autistic people face multiple barriers in terms of trying to access the support they need, and I very much agree with the point you make.

I think it's potentially also worthwhile—through you, Chair—reminding ourselves as well that we are talking about an incredibly diverse Welsh population here, from as young as 20s for cancer, or even earlier, actually, with teenage cancer and childhood leukaemia, right up to octogenarians plus, and their preferred model of how to access those services will vary hugely within that. I'm just talking about demographics here; I'm not talking about specific conditions, such as autism or such as dementia. So, somebody's preferred model of access—I, personally, would love to do things online, but my mother wouldn't. So, to recognise that we, through a social model, need to try to make accessing services appropriate for that person—because, particularly for cancer, if you're undergoing a cancer diagnosis, the last thing you want to do is fill out a 20-page form. It's the very last thing you want to do, and that's one of the reasons why we employ cancer support advisers to support those people with cancer, but it's not easy.

If I just could pick up on one point regarding communication, it's quite a specific issue for people living with dementia, especially where they speak more than one language, and English is the second language. We've produced a report with the Welsh Language Commissioner that I'm hopeful you've all seen, and, in that report, it explicitly states that people lose the second language first, and I'm not just talking about Welsh here. Wales is, quite rightly, a very diverse nation with very diverse populations speaking a multitude of languages. Should their English capabilities and skills deteriorate as their dementia progresses, we need to ensure that, actually, people can access the services in languages that they're most comfortable with, because if you're from, say, the Somali community in Cardiff Bay, living with dementia and looking to access a blue badge, but your English language skills have deteriorated to the point where you don't feel comfortable speaking English one on one with somebody, you're not going to get the correct assessment for that badge.

10:00

Diolch. Bore da. I know one of you touched earlier on on saying that medical professional involvement would be more welcome in this whole process. So, I wonder if you can tell us what you think of the Welsh Government's decision to remove GPs from the independent mobility assessment process, please?

I think there are challenges about that. I can understand that, historically, there were problems with getting GPs' letters, and I think there have been issues around charging clients for them and the time commitment for GPs. But I think there needs to be flexibility within it. I think GPs shouldn't just be completely excluded. There is a place for thinking about people in the survivorship stage of cancer—they may not have a consultant anymore, they may not have access to a clinical nurse specialist anymore. They may have been discharged back to the care of their GP and they may have no involvement with any other professionals. So, to exclude them then leaves them disadvantaged, really. So, I think there needs to be that kind of flexibility and I think what's happened as well, our advisers report that the CNSs, the clinical nurse specialists, feel very under pressure to provide letters for various things—for welfare benefits, for PIP, for employment and support allowance, if you've got housing issues. So, there's a lot of pressure on them to provide letters—I think because it's falling to them because they're not going to GPs. So, I think there needs to be a little bit of flexibility, maybe, about it.

And, of course, ensuring that this issue is treated in the primary care sector rather than the secondary is something that runs through every Welsh Government guidance that you can read. Shifting it obviously away from GPs does contradict that to a certain extent, and particularly for chronic and ongoing conditions, those GPs are going to be the very best-placed people to have that ongoing contact with that individual and to know the specific deep-lying conditions, and potentially as well refer through to social prescription as a means for alleviating some of these mobility issues. It doesn't always have to be, 'You've got mobility issues for life'; well, perhaps refer them through to the gym or something like that instead.

Okay. Various stakeholders have raised concerns with us about the competence of assessors, and you've mentioned that they need to be better trained to understand hidden disabilities and so on. Do you generally share those concerns? Is that a universal 'yes'? Yes. Okay. And just the views on the appeal process—are there any changes that you'd like to see to the appeal process?

We'd like to see an appeals process, the existence of an appeals process. I think one of the ways in which you can overcome the variability of the system is to have some sort of oversight that at least provides some level of certainty for people. I think what people are expected to do currently is to resubmit their application with further evidence. For a lot of autistic people the problem is trying to evidence their application, because they just don't have access to the professionals that local authorities are looking for. So, it can be really problematic for people. So, I think, obviously, I mentioned before about making sure that that evidence can come from elsewhere, but certainly having somewhere where you can go just to have someone else look at the same application rather than have the pressure of trying to find—

So, like an adviser there, then—that kind of system.

Absolutely. I think anything that can provide that level of clarity rather than the variability that we see will really help. That oversight will be really important, I think, for autistic people.

I think Macmillan would agree as well. There should be an appeals process, really, because having a reconsideration by the same organisation or the same person perhaps who actually made the original decision—our advisers didn't really have any idea who the assessors were, or what framework they work towards, or how skilled they were. They just didn't know, and I guess there's something about: if you've got an appeals process, again, it's about good practice. That appeals process can see where the variations or the discrepancies are and that can feed into an overall improvement of the process.

Yes, okay. It's just reminding me of something that was said earlier on about the PIP assessments. We know that—is it 71 per cent of those are successful on appeal? [Interruption.] Seventy-two. Thank you very much for correcting me there. [Laughter.] Okay, thank you very much. 

10:05

I think, for us, there's a recognition that, of course, there needs to be a stringency in the application process, because if there wasn't then there would be an over-demand, relative to a restricted supply of blue badge spaces. But certainly for us, the balance of risk is potentially too stringent, where we are putting barriers up in front of people who are going through an incredibly traumatic experience for the sake of protecting the overall pool. As I said, I accept and we accept that that is a risk that needs to be managed, but, at the moment, the balance of risk is a little bit too much on the adverse side.

Thank you. What strikes me, by the way, is that the appeals process that we often see working—how effective it is and how sympathetic it is to the individual, because there are people who understand it sitting there who give that benefit of the—. They manage the balance, but they do it on the basis of the benefit of the doubt, and it's an intelligent interrogation of an individual in a sympathetic way. That should be happening at the initial assessment. Sorry, that's just a point, not just in terms of the PIP side, but in terms of what we're talking about here.

Right, I'm the enforcer this afternoon, so I want your views on enforcement. Can I just go to the basic issue here? Do we know that abuse of blue badge is a significant issue, before we get on to how we enforce it? Is it anecdotal that we pick up that there's a problem with abuse of blue badges, or do we have some empirical data that says—?

We have nothing. There is no specific evidence. 

Okay, I might be asking the same question of other witnesses as well. Okay. We all know it anecdotally, of course. Training of people who enforce blue badge parking, blue badge spaces, private enforcers, public car parks—all of this sort of thing—and in supermarkets and so on: do you think—? What are your views on the suggestion that's been put to us that, actually, one thing that would be of benefit is consistency of enforcement, and that would require training of enforcers, whoever they are, of enforcement agencies—of the people who decide whether that's an appropriate person to be parking in that space or on those yellow lines? 

I don't think it's for that person to make that determination. I think if the blue badge has been legitimately obtained, then it's not for them to determine whether or not that person should be using it. I appreciate there is that sort of desire to cut down on misuse, but from our perspective, certainly, if you're an enforcement officer working in a particular car park and you see an autistic person get out of the car and make their way to the shop, you're more likely to stop that person than you are to stop someone who's coming out with a physical impairment.  

Okay, that's very clear. Sorry, let me flip it the other way round. It's actually the enforcers that are failing to enforce where people without a blue badge are parking and misusing spaces. 

It's potentially the case that it's not a priority for local authorities to actually enforce it; that's something that, potentially, you need to ask local authorities about. I know that Conwy County Borough Council did submit an idea about some form of smart badge where you'd be able to scan it. I think, in principle, we would be in favour of that, with the caveat that it shouldn't put up additional barriers to people, or cost. We are not in favour of the fee that exists in England for the application. We very much welcome the Welsh Government derogation of that. But, in principle, the principle that something should be available to allow enforcers to adequately enforce is not something we have a problem with.   

But you have a problem if that put an added obstacle in terms of fee, or whatever, for somebody. Right. But you do have some sympathy with the idea that that could deal with people who do, however many there are, misuse blue badges by using out-of-date blue badges, by, I don't know, using it when it's not—. This is a difficult one, because sometimes you'll speak to people who use blue badges who are using it for an individual, on behalf of an individual, because they've just left a caring responsibility and have rushed down to their shops, or whatever. But at least if you had—. But you're not averse to that idea of having a central database for the electronic barcode where you could say, 'That's a valid blue badge.'

I think, for us, the fact that we're having this conversation illustrates that there is at least a cultural recognition that this abuse may be going on. If that kind of system were able to eradicate or diminish that perception, particularly so that people with fewer demonstrable conditions aren't penalised as a result—and, obviously, cancer patients would be part of that cohort—we would welcome that.

10:10

What you're describing here is the general discrimination and attitudes that people have in society against disabled people, especially people with a hidden disability, isn't it, which is then filtered right through to this process? So, what we really need is a culture change to all of this, isn't it, which is going to be difficult after, say, a decade or more of adverts on the telly having a go at disabled people? Sorry, that was just an aside.

No, no, indeed. Can I ask for your views on whether or not it would be advantageous or even desirable, as part of the enforcement, to use some other sort of civil sanctions against people who misuse blue badges, because a lot of what we've talked about today is actually about getting it right so that those people who need blue badges can actually use blue badges and so on? But on that basis, and particularly if we are to shift the balance into being a more sympathetic approach to different conditions and so on, then we could reasonably assume that there'll be some uplift in the number of people with blue badges. On that basis, we'd better make sure that we're enforcing it properly. So, for those who misuse it, should we have sanctions? Should we have fines? Should we have points on driving licences?

From our perspective, the evidence that we have from our members is very much that there are problems with the application process, there are problems with trying to access the scheme. I'm not saying that it doesn't happen, but we don't have any evidence that would suggest that there's a limitation on people's ability to actually access parking bays. I'm not saying that's not the case, but we certainly don't have that evidence from individuals with a legitimate blue badge who are saying, 'There are not enough blue badge spaces.'

Everything that is suggested at the moment suggests that we shouldn't give undue notice to the anecdotal stuff around this—that there's a real problem.

Yes, I think that's the concern, though—we don't have any actual empirical evidence around it. We only have anecdotal stuff, and so I'd be reluctant to commit either way, without some actual evidence.

But do you not get hassle from people that you represent within your organisations saying, 'I'm sick and tired of people misusing blue badge spaces, when I need one'?

We haven't had any direct feedback from our advisers at all on clients complaining of that.

I think, before we move on, Chair, if I can just comment on something you raised in passing there, Huw, about the carers who are looking after their loved one and nip to the shops and pop the blue badge on the front of the car to use the space, to nip in to buy a pint of milk and then to rush back home—I think we would need to be very, very careful about, if there were some form of civil punitive measures put in place, whether that was misuse or not. Because, clearly, if the blue badge is in the name of the person who they are caring for, technically, yes, it would be, I suppose, misuse, but actually is it a misuse, if it's in performing their caring role? And so I think we'd having to be very, very careful about defining misuse and defining how the blue badge can be used to prevent that sort of thing happening, because otherwise you will end up with a situation where carers do get penalised for doing their job, essentially.

Thanks for that. We'll move on to Mark, then, and some issues around support and information.

Amongst others, Disability Wales has raised concerns about the accuracy of the advice and information being given to claimants. You've already made some reference to this. Do you have anything you can share with us beyond what you've already highlighted?

I think, from Macmillan's point of view, there are concerns about the variety and the quality of the advice and information given to people around the blue badge scheme. I think one of the advisers highlighted to us that it seems to be getting a little bit worse as the councils turn to a more single point of access or single point of contact—so, through a call centre-type contact—and that the people who are answering the phones are less able to give accurate advice and guidance about the blue badge scheme, whereas, with councils that still have a dedicated blue badge team with a direct line, that's much better. So, there is some concern around that.

Certainly, the online information that you can access from the websites of local authorities would paint a picture of 22 completely different systems. Some direct you to the UK-wide application system, and I'm not sure that that fully takes into account the previous extension to the criteria. So, I think there are different barriers that people face in trying to access information online, because the way they talk about who's eligible for a blue badge, the way they talk about the evidence, the way they talk about how people can apply is just completely, completely different in 22 different local authorities. I think that is really difficult for us to give people the information and advice that they need, because it really is so location dependent. 

10:15

We'd agree with everything that's just been said. I mean, it's a different way of saying accuracy. Variability is another thing. That huge variability could legitimately mean that the advice given is inaccurate. Because if you're a resident of Cardiff and then you move to Caerphilly, you've got a whole new ball game all over again. It goes back to a point that I made earlier and that was echoed, that cancer is fundamentally a DNA damage issue, which is related to ageing. So, you're more likely to be prone to cancer if you're older. An older demographic as well is also likely to have more specific access needs in terms of (a) not being as mobile as they might have been in younger ages, but also not being as technologically savvy as their grandchildren might be, for example. So, requiring a person to go to a single point of access in order to access those services isn't the best idea in the world when you're actually applying for a mobility badge in the first place, because—you see what I mean, there's a displacement issue there. Also, having to look up the advice online when that isn't your forte or might not be your forte is also counterintuitive. But, our greatest issue is that huge variability across Wales.

I've had a lot of casework where local authorities under the social services and well-being Act have introduced single points of access for generic services, but have then lost the specialist knowledge they accessed either internally or through commissioned services and third sector partners. Are there any good models in any parts of Wales or any councils you can identify who are getting this right?

We have been told of some areas of good practice. I don't really want to name and shame today, but we can certainly share that afterwards with you.

If there's somewhere we can look at that you feel is helping people more, which we could trigger or flag up or have a look at, that would be helpful.

We'd be happy to share that afterwards. 

Thank you very much. The National Autistic Society, and you've made some reference to this already, has referred to anecdotal evidence that people with hidden impairments can feel judged or discriminated against for using a blue badge. Can you provide us with any further overview of this issue? What prevalence is there across Wales and what should we do about it? How do we raise public awareness so that it's not simply people with visible impairments who are considered eligible?

We sort of touched on it a little bit earlier. I don't have any overview of any areas where it happens more so than others, but certainly you could speak to 10 people and it's probably happened to most of them. I can think of one example of someone being shouted at in a car park of a supermarket and then followed around the supermarket and being abused because they used a blue badge and it wasn't clear to that individual that that person had a legitimate use for that blue badge. So, I absolutely think it's a problem that needs to be addressed.

One of the ways it can be addressed is through some sort of awareness campaign, for the general public to recognise that it's not just a necessity for people with a physical condition. Again, just to reiterate, the imagery and the visual around the blue badge, the wheelchair user, is very old-fashioned now. I don't think it's something that represents a group of people with such a diversity of needs. I think we need to look at that because it just clings on to that issue that to have this blue badge you must be a wheelchair user or you must have a physical condition. 

Mark, just before you go on, I'll just bring Huw in on this point.

I'm very taken with the idea of the image and what it means in people's minds. One of the discussions we've had previously on the committee is that we should flip the whole thing and get away from those very aged, now, images and move towards an idea more of positive parking, and that would include the issues of carers. Because there are certainly carers who are tied to their caring responsibilities, who have limited time to nip out, and yet they would be exactly the sort of people that somebody who, not understanding it, would have a go at. Now, if we flip it—something with the symbolism, but it does mean more than that as well—about this idea that there are certain citizens who require a positive-parking approach, and we scrap the disability focus and certainly the very old-fashioned one and move to that. I just wonder what your views are on being a bit more radical.

10:20

I think, from our point of view at Alzheimer’s Society Cymru, we would like that. Certainly, picking up on the carers point, a lot of the work that is done caring for people living with dementia is done by spouses. I think the stat is something like 60 to 70 per cent of all caring work is done by women [correction: 60 to 70 per cent of all carers for people living with dementia in the UK are women]—by wives and by daughters—and allowing a positive-parking approach would certainly benefit them. Most of those still work—I think the stat is something like 30 to 40 per cent of those still work—[correction: 20 per cent of female carers have gone from full-time to part-time employment as a result of their caring responsibilities and 17 per cent felt penalised at work]—and so they do their caring around their other responsibilities, their work, their friends. And so allowing them to have that flexibility to park positively would certainly be a big bonus for us, I think.

Another possible approach is to recognise that some of the tensions that we discussed earlier may very well be around the fact that the blue badge bays, particularly in supermarkets, town centres et cetera, tend to be in the premium spots and everybody likes to park next to the supermarket, next to Tesco or Asda's entrance, don't they? But for some people, it's the size of the space that's the premium, not necessarily the location of them, and the availability of them as well as a designated space. So, you know, making more available further away from the entrance, where perhaps that would allow people to have a guaranteed space, particularly in those caring situations, where their own mobility issue is not the issue, if you see what I mean, but they can nip there, be guaranteed a spot on a Saturday afternoon, but it doesn't have to be next to the front doors. 

Do you think that people with what you might call temporary impairments, perhaps post surgery, should not have to wait a full year to be eligible if their impairment means they're going to have very limited mobility for a shorter period than a year, but nonetheless during that period it impacts on their independence?

Yes. We would support that, yes. 

Likewise. 

Okay, thanks, Mark. Gareth, then, do you feel there's anything within—?

We touched on fees, but I'm not sure—did we cover it all comprehensively? I know a lot of it's been covered.

Thank you, Chair, and thank you, panel. My question to you is because the ageing population is on the increase, so, spaces, there may not be that many available around different areas and different problems—some people can drive in the day and some people can't drive in the day. There are a lot of conditions attached to it—you mentioned the language and a couple of different areas. Have you clearly considered have we got enough, you know, blue badge recipients in future that we make sure that everybody gets according to their need—during the day, say, a five-hour badge is available or 10 hours for you? Because a badge is for 24/7. Some people are banned from night driving because of some medical condition. So, is there any condition that can be attached to these badges for people to use?  

Sorry, I started scribbling down a bit of an answer these and your final question changed the tone a little bit. If I start out with the premise of what I was going to answer. I recognise that greater pressure would be put on particularly town- and city-centre parking by an expanding older generation that would have a greater requirement for those blue badges, but as part of that as well, there needs to be recognition that now there are a lot of people who actually don't need to drive to those locations in the first place. It relates to the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, the Active Travel (Wales) Act 2013, and I say this as somebody who clearly has a BMI at the wrong side of optimal. Obesity is the second leading cause of cancer and that's something we are concerned about, and as a result of that we are concerned about trying to shift people away from needing to use the car in the first place. That might be a little bit outside the scope of this inquiry, but encouraging city-centre parking and town-centre parking, potentially, with subsidised town-centre parking, as opposed to encouraging or subsidising public transport, is potentially a way of resolving this issue. So, you remove the pressure on town-centre parking by removing the requirement of perfectly fit, healthy and able-bodied people to drive there in the first place.

10:25

That's very useful. Okay, well, thank you all very much for coming in to give evidence to the committee this morning. You will be sent a transcript of your evidence to check for factual accuracy. Diolch yn fawr.

3. Ymchwiliad i Gynllun y Bathodyn Glas yng Nghymru—Cymhwystra a Gweithredu: Sesiwn Dystiolaeth 3
3. Inquiry into the Blue Badge Scheme in Wales—Eligibility and Implementation: Evidence Session 3

Okay then. Welcome to you both. We move on to our third evidence session then, and I'm very pleased to welcome Kate Young, director of the All Wales Forum of Parents and Carers of People with Learning Disabilities, and Valerie Billingham, policy and campaigns manager with Age Cymru. Welcome to you both and thanks for coming along to give evidence to the committee today. Perhaps I might begin with some questions on eligibility criteria, and firstly, your view on extending the criteria to include people with cognitive impairments and temporary conditions.

Okay. Good morning everybody. Thank you very much for giving us this opportunity. Obviously, from our network's perspective, we are a national organisation that represents families who have a wide range of impairments, and so, from their perspective, when I went out and asked them about the extension, they were particularly pleased to see that it had been extended to include cognitive impairments and mental health. Particularly, that was picked up by our families who have autism in their lives, and also milder forms of learning disability, where, for want of a clumsy phrase, it isn't necessarily always obvious that somebody has a particular condition they're living with until you speak to them or their world is explored. So, they were particularly pleased to see that.

There was also some kind of view that when it comes to the extension, the particular reasons why for autism and those groups they felt it was particularly useful was whilst, for most people in the public I think there's still a perception that the blue badge is mainly around physical impairment, there's still that as an issue. For an awful lot of those families, they felt it was a really welcome extension, because it meant that, for them, living with young people, for example, who might experience sensory overload when accessing public spaces, or needing to have a very specific type of routine, in terms of being able to park or get out in exactly the same place or the same way, that actually it meant that they could visit public spaces much more easily. And also, justifiably use those spaces for them.

We would certainly support that, and we have heard from quite a few older people who are living with chronic conditions or comorbidities. Those conditions fluctuate and there may be acute episodes within the chronic condition pathway, so their capacity does vary. So, definitely, we would be supportive.

Okay, thanks very much. And in terms of public awareness, we've received evidence from Disability Wales that there's a lack of public awareness, or insufficient public awareness, in terms of the extension of the eligibility criteria. Is that a view you would agree with? And, if so, would you point us towards anything in particular that might be done to improve public awareness? 

10:30

Yes, we would agree with that, and we hear from our local Age Cymru partners, who are helping a lot of people with their applications, that there is a low level of public awareness about the extension and about blue badge eligibility in general, not only about the extension. We think that the low levels of public awareness about eligibility are contributing to misconceptions about people in the community who get out of their car with no apparent difficulty. Subjective observers often misinterpret whether those people are eligible or not, and this might be fueling prejudice and sometimes abuse in the community. And we've had suggestions—. We heard from one lady who's husband was treated in a couple of different hospitals. He had cancer treatment and about six months before that he'd had emergency surgery for a brain bleed. One hospital was in Newport, one was in Cardiff. So, he was going through quite a traumatic time, and his wife pointed out to us that nobody in either hospital had ever asked him, 'How do you manage to get to your appointments?' So, her suggestion was that NHS staff could do more to publicise the availability of blue badges. 

We would back that too. There is a lack of awareness still around the extension. Obviously, there are organisations like ours that are busy trying to make people aware of it, but it is an issue and it is reflected, sadly, in the fact that where people have actually applied for the badge, going back to the autism group particularly, there have been some comments that have been made by the public to families about, 'Why are you parking in these spaces?', because there is that, kind of, cultural perception that there must be some form of mobility situation to make it justifiable to be parking in them. So, I think those two things are intertwined in a slight problem, that even when we try and push it in terms of public awareness there's that reluctance sometimes because people feel that the cultural perception weighs heavier than our promotion, if that makes sense.

We had similar conversations about where people thought information should be available. For families, they also reflected on the NHS GP surgeries. People felt very firmly that when somebody had been registered as a carer that that GP could then be saying, 'What is the nature of your caring role?', and, actually, the blue badge could be highlighted in that conversation. There's also a role, potentially, for health visitors because particularly for young children, in diagnosis—they're in people's lives until the age of two, three, and, for some people, early diagnosis does happen—for an awful lot of people with autism, sadly it doesn't happen that quickly—but it does, and so there was a thought around them. And also schools: schools and education facilities and actually having some information around them to, sort of, say, 'Are you aware that maybe the person you are looking after—?' And colleges too, because, quite frankly, some people get to that age before they realise and they're trying to live some independent life and it's at that point where they're accessing it. So, there was a sense of whether a national campaign was needed, but it was about where you target that national campaign, I suppose, but alongside, there was a concern around—. It's well and good to promote it, but if the bigger cultural perception from the public is still, 'Well, why have you got this?'—so, they felt there needed to be a two-pronged approach to it. 

I see. And I guess supermarkets, for example, might be encouraged to put signage up explaining what the criteria are and extensions that have taken place in general terms, and that might, perhaps, alleviate some of the issues. 

Absolutely. It's the same principle for any kind of engagement. You go to where people are already gathering and get your messages across to them where they naturally congregate. 

Yes, okay. Thanks for that. In terms of the current guidance to local authorities on blue badges, we heard from Alzheimer's Society Cymru that, in their view, that guidance should be amended to consider carers. Is that something you would agree with?

Yes, in a nutshell. Yes. I think, for an awful lot of people, it's the carer who would actually be behind that person and helping them to fill in the form, so actually understanding that carers do that. I have had this conversation with some of our families where they are single-car households. So, the comment that Alzheimer's Society have made particularly about the carer being able to apply for themselves, as in from the family perspective, because, for an awful lot of those situations, it is actually the carer that is doing the driving and the support and the parking of the vehicle. And, sometimes, that carer may actually need to be picking up something fairly quick, like a prescription or other things that are fairly essential. So, it would be beneficial to include carers in the list, without doubt.

10:35

Yes, we agree. Without carers, a lot of blue badge holders wouldn't be able to use their blue badge at all, so it's absolutely essential. We had some anecdotal evidence from a carer—a lady who is 75 whose husband is in a wheelchair, and we also had some evidence from a care home, so I can cover both those points, if that would be helpful. The 75-year-old lady, who is driving her husband to hospital and having to push him in his wheelchair up a very steep slope, found that physically very difficult for her and was having to drop him off illegally at the entrance to the hospital and basically abandon him at the entrance to the hospital, to his own great distress, while she went and parked the car. It would take her some time to unload whatever she needed to get out of the car and get back to her husband. All of that time he's sitting there without his carer in his wheelchair. She says that, at one point, a nurse said to her, 'Just leave it there illegally, and I'll sort out any problems with parking, if anybody comes round', and she didn't feel that they should be put in that position where they were having to break the law, basically. She applied for a blue badge eventually. It took a long time to arrive. She queried at the council why it was taking so long to arrive. The council told her that they had one part-time person processing a lot of applications. And the badge eventually arrived a few days before her husband died.

When it got to the evidence from a care home manager, the care home manager pointed out that, previously, they had been able to get a single blue badge for the whole of the care home, and that was administratively very easy, and it enabled them to take people out as and when. Now, they say that the care home has to apply individually for each individual resident who needs a badge at the care home, which struck me as odd because, on the back of the blue badge leaflet, it clearly states that care homes can apply for a single blue badge. But checking with Welsh Government guidance, the guidance states that it is preferable—it doesn't state preferable for whom—for care homes to apply for individual blue badges for their residents. So, clearly, that particular council is placing more weight on that. And that can only be fuelling the administrative burden on the council and fuelling the waiting times for people like the lady pushing her husband in a wheelchair up a slope to a hospital.

So, I thought that bit of the guidance and also the lack of automatic renewal for people who are never going to improve—you know, those are two big things that could reduce administrative burden and speed up people's access to badges.

And that care home issue—that would apply equally to nursing homes and residential homes.

Yes.

Okay. That's very useful, Valerie. Thanks very much for that. Could I ask you as well: do you have particular views as to any specific conditions that you would like to see eligibility extended to include?

I think we come back here to the social model of disability, where it's a gap between the capacity of the person and the demands of the environment. Really, some conditions are more likely to lead to that gap than others, but I'd be wary about setting up anything that would exclude a particular condition, if that individual with that condition was having genuine difficulties.

We would support that. From our perspective, it's less—. It's a tricky one, isn't it, because when you start to get into a list then you do start to get into a concern that you might accidentally remove a group of people or disconnect them from something? So, we didn't go with a thing about extending it to particular extra groups, but we were more concerned about how the evidence was gathered for it, and that social, medical conversation, and for an awful lot of people—. I mean, at the moment, the weighting is very heavily on medical evidence, and we come back to how the condition directly impacts on you and impairs on you. We would like to see the evidence gathered from social care carers’ statements—a much broader structure of being able to gather evidence, which I think reflects much more strongly on the policy of Welsh Government generally, which is much more on a kind of in the round approach of looking at how we get information about how people live their lives and how their lives are impacted by certain things. So, certainly, in our network, families were saying that sometimes the reliance on GP diagnosis letters—. I mean, if you had your diagnosis that your child was to be born with Down’s syndrome and then you were applying for a badge 10 or 15 years later, actually, your GP or that medical information is probably not where you're going to get the best source of material about how it impacts on your child's life. It will be your own statement as a family, as a carer. It may well be a teaching assistant in school. It could well be social work in terms of the care plan. I really feel quite passionately—we do, as an organisation—that if the evidence gathered was much more robust and richer, then perhaps some of the refusals we see that we think really shouldn't be refusals wouldn't be happening in the first place.

10:40

Right, okay. Well, that's very useful, Kate. Finally, from me, before we move on to other committee members: the relationship between eligibility for blue badges and eligibility for welfare benefits—do you have any particular views on that?

Yes. Where do we start on welfare benefits, remembering that, sadly, we don't have control over those in this good institution? 'Yes' is the short answer. There are problems with it. Disability Wales obviously cited that in their evidence, and we, alongside Disability Wales, are involved in a group that's looking at how things like the personal independence payment are affecting our members across Wales. There is a genuine issue about how the new PIP process sets out what it means by mobility and what that, therefore, means for citizens who claim personal independence payment. We should also be aware, in this room, that for an awful lot of those people, where they get given a verdict, if you like, from the PIP world, that then there are an awful lot of appeals, and most of those appeals are being overturned—[Interruption.] Exactly. And in the meantime, if that's actually then having a direct knock-on impact somewhere else in someone's life, around, for example, reapplying for a blue badge—. So, we've got quite a lot of citizens who will have had their blue badge, then they come into the process of the renewal, they might be in the process of their PIP situation, the PIP situation has changed, so suddenly they're not eligible for their blue badge anymore, and it compounds the situation further for them—and we're talking about quite vulnerable citizens here. So, again, going back to the point I just made, if the evidence gathered was in the round and it wasn't just so black and white about, 'Well, you know what, another assessment somewhere else on welfare benefits has decided whether you can or can't walk so many distances', then I think we would see fewer problems for people in terms of renewing their badges and applying in the first place. We are having a separate conversation as national organisations with the Department for Work and Pensions on their bit. But, sadly, that's two hours down that way, isn't it? 

Our local Age Cymru partners point out that people who are in receipt of PIP and disability living allowance—if they qualify for the mobility component, they're automatically entitled to a blue badge. They think this is unfair when people over state pension age have to go through a lot of hoops to demonstrate eligibility on grounds of mobility, so they see a lack of fairness there. A lot of older people don't claim their benefits, so they don't have evidence of benefit claims when they make a claim for a blue badge. A lot of older people don't know they're entitled to benefits and we've heard from a community agent that the application for the blue badge has been a great ice breaker among older people, because that's the point at which the community agent is able to tell them they qualify for other benefits, so they wouldn't have been through the assessment. A lot of older people are very proud and proud of their independence and proud of the service they've contributed as well. We heard from one gentleman who is coming up to 81—he said he served in the military police for 10 years; he served in South Wales Police for 35 years. 'During my working life, I had no serious illness or was ever hospitalised', he says. He had a heart attack eventually, he had two mini strokes, had to be airlifted to hospital. He's made a slow recovery and it's left him only able to walk slowly and he's prone to stumbling and he can't stand for very long periods. So, this is a proud man. 'Last year, I decided to apply for a blue badge', he says. 'I'm able to drive. Every day, I go swimming in the local pool, but the car park near the pool is only enjoyed by blue badge holders'. He went to the council offices to apply. 'The first question I was asked was, "Was I on any benefits?" I am proud to say, "no"', he says. But he needs that blue badge.

10:45

Yes. That was a great example, Valerie, and examples are always instructive. Thank you very much for that. Okay. Okay, assessment processing, and Oscar.

Thank you very much. Good morning to the witnesses. Assessment processing is another part of the work. What are your views on, particularly, the inconsistency across Wales?

There is evidence from our conversations with our family networks of inconsistency. That's certainly true—differing reasons for why people may have been refused. We've had a few situations where people have been told that their children, even though they may have a diagnosis, are too young for one, so there's a sort of, 'It can't really be an issue for you yet' as an independent assessor moment and I don't understand how that can be the case, because, if somebody has been diagnosed with having complex autism needs at the age of three or four and they clearly have issues about how they access their community, it's weird that an assessor turns around and says, in one county, 'That child is too young for it to really be an issue for you yet', and then, in another county, they go, 'Absolutely. Here's your blue badge'. So, there are inconsistencies across there. 

When we asked our families about it, one of their key things was around the training of assessors on particular conditions and understanding the world that those conditions live in and the impact for those conditions. Because I asked the question of, not just, 'Is it a postcode lottery?' but 'What would you recommend if we were going to try and do something about it?' and our families said that it would be really good if we could get some training that's consistent training across all local authorities on particular conditions. That's not too dissimilar to the conversation that we had with the Department for Work and Pensions around the personal independence payment assessors and their need to understand what it was like to live with autism or varying conditions—Down's syndrome, mental health problems, different areas.

And there are obviously third sector organisations out there across Wales that have a wealth of knowledge and run workshops all the time on, 'This is what it's like to be an older person experiencing certain things. This is what it's like to be somebody living with autism. This is what it's like to be—'. And so, I don't really think it's that we don't have the tools; I think it's about making sure that we provide the assessors with access to those tools, but that everybody goes through that process, because it would appear that an awful lot of the inconsistency is around people's individual perceptions of what it's like to live with a particular condition. And then, when you challenge that back and there's an issue around the appeal process, which is a separate question, but, when people challenge that back, the answers they get back are often reflective of, 'Well, I didn't realise that A, B and C might be more of a problem than it actually was'. So, there's something about, if we can bring consistency to the training, then we would probably help to reduce a great deal the postcode lottery effect of how those assessments are done.

Valerie just earlier mentioned that there's only a part-time assessor in one of the councils anyway, so those are areas we have to consider seriously. And the thing is—. This community—. Another witness, sorry, a stakeholder, Disability Wales, they have suggested that there are also inconsistencies in the renewal process for blue badges. What are your views on that?

10:50

We certainly heard from people who have previously qualified for blue badges whose circumstances have not changed and have now been told that they're no longer eligible, particularly from people who had been granted blue badges previously on medical grounds, where a GP or a consultant has been involved in the assessment process. There was one lady who came to us saying she was very distressed because she had been told—she had a blue badge on medical grounds; her consultant had provided the evidence. She had gone to the council offices expecting to renew it, because her condition hadn't changed, and she felt humiliated at being told by a young administrative person in a council office that she couldn't have one any more. So, there's a big psychological impact there.

We also hear about inconsistency across Wales in applying criteria, particularly around the distances people can walk. There seems to be a lot of variation. Some assessors take quite a humane view, and others take what sometimes can seem a very harsh view about people's capacity.

Thank you very much. There are certain areas—we know that people are visibly disabled and some are not—dementia was mentioned earlier, and some other, high impairments and a couple of others, where you can see that some are disabled with a leg problem and they can't walk, but there are still people who are visibly fit. They don't get it, and other people with other conditions get it—

Particularly where someone with dementia has been discharged by their hospital consultant because there's no more the consultant can do, so they're not in treatment any more. We find that that's a particular example of where people have difficulty.

On a similar condition, the dementia condition, it was also mentioned that the language—people speak different languages, and they tend to lose some communication skills in a different language, and they can't express their feeling in their own language, so there's no such thing available there for them to help to get their views forward to get the blue badge.

Yes, that's true, and it's true in terms of how the questions are asked in assessments and in renewals as well. So, the way we ask people to explain what their impairment is can be quite awkward. Again, we would back—the National Autistic Society made a really good point, I know, around the use of language in terms of how easy it is for people to explain their situation, their condition. Obviously, dementia is a key one in terms of a carer, potentially, having to explain a condition, because maybe somebody's situation has deteriorated since the last time.

There are also inconsistencies where some people are living with a condition where it isn't going to change, or it's certainly not going to improve. Sometimes, those renewal processes are quite straightforward, and it's almost like a kind of paper exercise, because the assessor takes quite a commonsense approach of going, 'Well, quite clearly, this is this person's situation, we had all this evidence before, it's not going to be a condition that is going to improve.' So, dementia is one of those, and they'll almost process it quite quickly. But then we've also got examples where people are being asked to literally start again and go back and find all that evidence and redo it, and that's quite distressing and quite painful. It's distressing if you're a parent of somebody, for example, with Down's syndrome—it doesn't change. Three years down the line, they still are living with Down's syndrome, they still will have the cognitive impairment that that brings them. Similarly, obviously, for conditions like dementia or Parkinson's or some of the other conditions that tend to hit us in middle, older age, that is quite distressing, to have to go back over why it's actually much worse than it was before, even if, actually, earlier on, you were still entitled to the badge. So, there's something about a humane approach to consistency in how we deal with renewals, as well, I think.

What do you think about the consistency in the initial process and the subsequent renewal process—the difference in this blue badge process? What do you say about that?

What, in the sense that if we get consistency—

The initial assessment, when they do it, and the renewal assessment—they're two different things. One is—

Well, if I'm honest, I would, as an organisation, and I think probably several of us as organisations would feel the same way, but we certainly do—. We would rather that the actual initial process, assessment process, as I said earlier, is really quite comprehensive, done in the round, and there is almost a thing that, when it comes to the renewal—. So, for example, with certain benefits and certain other situations, you can tick somebody off to be a paper-based exercise almost, because it isn't going to change, because that person's situation is incredibly unlikely to change. So, it then means that you're not burdening the assessor with having to go through every single person in great detail, and at the same time you're not necessarily distressing an individual who renews.

There's also the issue about the time frame of renewal. Renewing it every three years—we could genuinely look at is there some logic for temporary conditions, or maybe conditions where the doctor has recommended something for the time being, and then agreeing that it's a shorter time frame, but then, if we go to something like living with autism or Down's syndrome or any of those conditions, they're not going to be any different in 10 years' time. So, do we then say that we'd want to have a much longer renewal process or date for those people? So, going back to the point about there's one solitary assessor, having said earlier they need to do better, and get some training to support them, there's probably some merit in looking logically at how often you renew blue badges or ask people to go for renewal within certain client groups as well, to be honest.

10:55

And with age, I think—with an ageing population increasing, sickness doesn't cure properly, because it gets worse with age rather than—. You'd have to go so quickly for assessment, I think—. It won't be fair on them to go in a year or two years. It must be longer, because—. And the consistency—I ask you specifically whether there is a consistency in the initial assessment and the renewal assessment.

Sorry—a long way of saying 'no'.

Thank you, yes. A healthy organisation has at its core a performance management focus on what works well and what we could do differently. The Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act requires public bodies to design and deliver services with people and communities. Kate, you referred to the importance of people with lived experience being involved in training, which is critical, and the casework I have where it's gone wrong almost invariably involves Captain Mainwaring-led organisations where people rely on internal experts, but not the people with lived experience. To what extent should those people with lived experience not only be training, which is an isolated incident, but in monitoring and the continued performance development of the teams involved? Because often the third sector schemes will be happy to do that, or autistic people or parents, carers, will be happy to do that, just to make things better.

Secondly and finally, when we took evidence from Capita last in the cross-party group on disability, they told us—because they do the initial assessment; the appeals go to DWP, not Capita, but they were not then told which assessors or which cases had been successful at appeal so they couldn't then performance manage the individual, because they didn't know who they were. So, in terms of blue badges as well, how important is it that that data is in the system, or collected and then fed back in as part of that continuous improvement process?

I think the answer to both those questions is 'very'—very important. So, you're absolutely right—training is a one-off situation and it would be brilliant if we actually had a system where there was monitoring in terms of a conversation with the local authority to kind of temperature check to see, with those citizens who actually receive blue badges, how well it's working. It would be much better if it was seen as a collaborative process between the local authority and citizens who are in receipt of it. And there are examples where co-monitoring, co-engagement, has actually proven to work. So, I would—'yes', is the short answer. I think you're absolutely right—it would be good to not just have training, but then to have some follow-on conversation. I think what that does for assessors is to enable them to also say, 'I'm human, and maybe I made an error on this one', or 'I'm not sure about this one', and to be able to go out to a group of citizens and go, 'Here's a couple of perhaps anonymised case studies, but these are some of the things that have come to us, and we weren't really sure', to be able to temperature check so that that community expertise, that lived-in expertise, can go, 'Well, actually, this is how we would have approached that as a group of people. This is why that person might have applied to you in the first place', so we can keep informing and educating and helping them learn.

In terms of collecting data so that we can track which assessors potentially might be struggling a bit more and which local authorities—absolutely, but again I would emphasise it, I suppose, not from a kind of—. Historically, we tend to sometimes end up feeling like it's a blame game—you know, 'You were the one who got that wrong'—and then that just doesn't tend to sit very comfortably with people; you can understand that. So, if you put the two suggestions that you've just raised together, then it would make sense to me, because we'd be data collecting but we'd also be providing them with some kind of support and a monitoring structure that felt reasonable for them to keep renewing and improving their skills, and it not just being a case of, 'In your local authority area, you made so many errors, or there were so many refusals and we would challenge that many', because that just then, ironically, could accidentally set us into a footing of 'It's us against you', which is not, I think, where we would want to go. So, I think you're right that the key is about those two things working together, for me.   

11:00

I think another thing is treating your complaints system as an improvement resource. There is a mass, a wealth of information there that could be systematically trawled for improvement purposes. And also, we'd support formal training and monitoring, but, again, there's a whole wealth of informal arrangements that can be made as part of people's continuing professional development throughout their careers, not just when they're on a particular scheme or not, to expose them to the realities of people's lived existence, secondments, volunteering opportunities, organisations who start every meeting with a case study from the person's perspective. So, there are lots of things that could be done, and the thing is to be a continuously learning organisation. 

My line of supplementary questions was similar to what Mark has just raised; I'm pleased with the questioning and the answer, but you are clearly suggesting that you would welcome—you and other organisations, I suspect—a more active role in this process so that we get the decisions right initially, and the follow-up and the training. You would welcome that, and you would—I guess this is my question—feel that collectively as a group of organisations in Wales, you'd have the capacity as well to do this. 

Well, as with taking on any kind of formal project, there are always capacity issues. Yes, they can be done. As with any other charity, the tension is between project costs and core costs and overheads, isn't it? So, it's about constructing the agreement so that we do have the capacity. 

I would agree with that, but I would also add that I think because what we're talking about is citizens and lived-in experience, from my perspective it isn't just necessarily about our capacity to do formal things; there's obviously the training and workshops. But, actually, the ongoing conversation that Mark alluded to in terms of having a group of citizens who can be checked in with is almost like an expert group. Actually, I think between us all, we would be able to co-ordinate that. It would not be that difficult for me to find three or four families that live in a particular local authority area. I would imagine you could easily find a few people living with dementia, older age, mental health; we're not talking about a huge group of people—almost like a mini expert support group to assist assessors and, as I said, to then come back with maybe anonymised case studies to say, 'These are some of the things that have come in. These are some of the questions I'm asking.' It's that two-way—it's exactly that—that two-way approach. It's making use effectively of the knowledge that exists in our community to better effect, isn't it? 

I absolutely agree with all of that. Even that, though, has costs. I've been talking to one of our local partner organisations this week about volunteers handing out leaflets as they go around their normal volunteering jobs, and even the tiny amount of overhead that carries is significant for a local partner organisation. So, we're not talking huge amounts of money—it's just acknowledging that even volunteering bears a cost. 

Sorry, just a final little point regarding the process. 

Thanks. I wonder if you could tell us your views about the Welsh Government's decision to remove GPs from the independent mobility assessment process, please. 

We have mixed views about the involvement of GPs. For some people, the GP is the most appropriate person to provide evidence to an assessor, because it's very much to do with a medical diagnosis and in those cases—absolutely. And I've already mentioned people who have previously qualified for a blue badge on medical grounds and now that the GP has been removed from the assessment process find that the interpretation is different. On the other hand, there are older people who have difficulty with mobility, but don't have a particular diagnosis. So, the GP may not be best placed to provide the evidence in those cases. So, I think we'd like to see a bit more flexibility around that.

11:05

Okay. I've got questions around your views on the competence of assessors, but I think you've covered that area. Then, my final question is for your views on the appeals process and what changes that you'd like to see to that process, please.

Well, technically, there is no appeals process against a blue badge. There are various types of recourse, but even so, we have had people come to us who have been told they can appeal, and have also been told that there's no point in them appealing because the grounds won't have changed.

We're the same. The feedback that we've had from our network and families basically says that if we're going to improve things around eligibility and competence as assessors, you will still have, and there will still be, some cases where decisions are made that, rightly, families and individuals should be able to appeal. So, there has been a collective agreement that they would like a consistent and unified appeals process to be built into the system. Because we've had similar conversations, where an assessor had gone, or somebody said, 'You can appeal, but it won't make any difference because we don't really have a proper appeals process', which just feels like a very lazy answer of going, 'We don't really want to go through the process with you again.' And that can be hugely soul-destroying, when you come back to some of the conditions and some of the situations people find themselves in and all of the effort and work they've gone to in trying to apply in the first place. 

Just very quickly on the GPs, I just wanted to say that we also had similar mixed things about GPs. Most of our families actually feel that GPs should still be an option, but it comes back to the point I raised earlier, which is that they felt that it shouldn't just be GPs who are an option; it should be GPs, health visitors, social workers, and carer evidence—so, the combination—so that it shouldn't necessarily feel like it's an either/or.

Enforcement—is there a problem with enforcement of blue badges?

We certainly have people complaining about a lack of parking spaces and we have people making subjective assumptions that the people parking in those spaces are not entitled to them, but who knows, really?

Is this anecdotal? Sorry—I'm asking you similar questions to what we've asked other witnesses. Is this anecdotal? Do we have any real hard evidence that can say, 'There is a problem here'?

It is anecdotal in the sense that, obviously, it's an awful lot of what people are telling us is happening to them, but we do have a couple of evidential stories, though, around private parking, actually, which is more of an issue, in a car park that's not very far away from here, for an entertainment complex, where somebody actually put their blue badge on the dash as they should do, and they support a young adult with quite complex autistic needs. One of his things is that he can have a sort of physical flare-out, and as they got him out of the car, unbeknownst to the carer, he'd knocked the badge off the dash—it was on the floor and you could see it, but he'd knocked it off the dash. They'd gone into the complex, they'd come out, they drove off and they got a ticket. Now, the carer was a bit frustrated they got the ticket, but thought, 'Well, you know, okay, if it wasn't on the dash.' So, they then wrote to said private parking company, and went, 'But here is my blue badge evidence and everything else', and that company said, 'It wasn't on the dash; my person couldn't see it, so tough.' We do have quite a lot of evidence where, particularly on private parking, people are basically saying, 'We don't care—even if you can supply us with the evidence that you brought a blue badge with you or that you are a blue badge holder, we don't care.' So, there are genuine issues around, I think, how perhaps maybe it's being enforced on what I would call local authority and public parking, and how private car park owners are deciding they want to make decisions against people.

So, would you have any practical suggestions on where, if at all, we need to prioritise action on enforcement? Is it training across the piece, whether you are private or public enforcers? Is it linked to misuse of spaces? What should we be focusing on? We've had suggestions that we should be using technology with a central database of people where you can swipe a chip and everything, which of course would carry with itself costs and registration.

11:10

Yes, and there's all the data protection stuff and everything else. That is a way of exploring it; that certainly is an interesting way of exploring it. Again, I think there is something around training to enforcers and that sense of using common sense and compassion. There have been anecdotal conversations where an enforcement officer has queried somebody getting out of a car saying, 'Is this actually your blue badge or have you borrowed it from somebody?', because the person didn't seem to have a mobility issue. So, there is a cultural need for some training, I would say.

And there is inconsistency in enforcement across councils, because councils are responsible for their own enforcement policy, so there's variation, then. More consistency is always to be welcomed, as long as it's leveling up not leveling down.

I think you can't disentangle enforcement from the availability of parking spaces. I think at Age Cymru we would like to see the availability of parking spaces considered as part of a more holistic, bigger-picture approach to the ageing of the population within the changes to the built environment—very much back to the social model of disability again, the demands on the capacity of the individual, the demands of the environment.

The blue badge scheme has been going for 40 years or something like that—a long time. Demography was different then, so numbers of people needing this kind of help and support were different then. The population has aged considerably and will continue to do so. The built environment has changed. The facilities that used to be more widely distributed, like libraries, banks, post offices, swimming pools, et cetera, are concentrated more and more in fewer centres now. That will concentrate the need for blue badge parking spaces, so likely to fuel more demand per parking space. And if older people have a lot of difficulty negotiating the built environment on foot or on public transport, that just fuels reliance on a car. So, it's this bigger picture, holistic thinking that we'd like to see.

Is the logic of what you're suggesting there that, with the demographic changes, we should be increasing the proportion that is available for blue badge or priority parking and frankly encouraging others who can avail themselves of more active travel modes or whatever to use those active travel modes? We will see more and more of priority parking availability at those focal points and less availability for others.

Well, I don't think we can come up with an answer until we've bottomed out the question. I'm saying the situation needs to be looked at in its complexities. I wouldn't like to arrive at a conclusion until we've done that. 

How accurate is the advice and information being given to claimants? If there are issues, what needs to change, including potentially the format in which it's provided?

We have had people come to us saying they've been given inaccurate advice and information. I don't know whether this was by an assessor or by someone else at the council, but people have certainly been told, for example, that unless someone is on benefits or on an opium-based painkiller they won't get a blue badge. That statement was checked with the council and the council said that that was not the case and couldn't believe that a member of their staff would have said this. So, we do have anecdotal evidence like that. 

We asked our families in terms of the accuracy of information and there wasn't really a problem with accuracy, but there was an issue in terms of the different modes that the information was available to them. Again, when you're talking about people with learning disabilities—easy read, the ability to actually have a conversation with their relatives about what applying for a blue badge might mean for them, with information that was available in a format that they could explain. It might not even necessarily mean that that individual would still go on and apply on their own behalf completely, but just to be able to have that equitable conversation about, 'This is what a blue badge might mean for you if we get one', and there was a conversation about that. There was a conversation about online resources and tools attached, doing things like BrowseAloud, so that people often have those on their computer systems but that the resource is able to be used in that way, so people can actually have things read out loud to them on the screen. Most of the families felt that online was probably the easiest and quickest way, but there was a big caveat of remembering that not everybody does, of course, have access to online. So, there was a slight, subtle warning to that, which is it's great to go forward with tonnes of technology but we just need to remember that, for a great group of people, technology isn't ever going to be their first answer and, actually, a face-to-face conversation should always still be something people could have. So, we had less comments about accuracy and more comments about accessibility and the appropriateness of the style of how that information was given.  

11:15

So, should the onus be on the public body to establish the communication needs of the neurodiverse individual first—

Again, if we go back to other things, when we're talking about things like making resources for your population needs, which they're supposed to have mapped, then 'yes' is the answer. 

Will that save them a lot of money if they get it right first time? 

Yes. [Laughter.] To come back to Oscar's point that, in a sense, if you get that right, if people can get the right information, which means the right application process gets in and we have a much more comprehensive way of gathering evidence and we make the right decision in the first place, then yes. Ultimately, what we're saying is if we get this right, common sense, first time around, it's less distress for citizens, less headache for assessors and fewer complaints or needs for an appeals process, although we should have one. 

A lot of older people are not online. The ones who are online have difficulty finding the right page on the council website that gives them the information. But we do hear a lot from our local partners and from other people who help people fill in their application forms that they are very concerned about the lack of support available to people to fill in forms and to know what to put on the forms to maximise their chances of a successful application. 

Okay, Mark. I think if we move on quickly to fees and parking because we have little time left, I'm afraid. This question might facilitate a short answer, I feel—your views on introducing a fee for applying for a blue badge and the current £10 fee for replacing a blue badge.  

We wouldn't want to see a fee introduced because an awful lot of our families see that as almost a tax on a situation that, for an awful lot of people, is not through any fault of their own. What we are is a compassionate society and community and we're supposed to be helping people to live independently, so a sense of applying for a fee to prove the reasons why you might need some assistance just didn't sit well.

The fee for renewal, there's an interesting one on this. We have quite a lot of families who say that their blue badge is stolen—we've had quite a few where they're stolen because, actually, it does mean that people can sell them on or do interesting, lucrative things with blue badges, which is fairly anecdotal at the moment but might be worth exploring because it does seem to be something that's happening quite a lot. But for those families where they are stolen or they are accidently lost, to have to pay to get a new one sent when, actually, it's not a luxury, it's an essential bit of equipment, that doesn't sit well will us either.

But there is also an issue about the time frame of how long it takes sometimes to get a renewal or a replacement one. The 12-week timeline—I appreciate when you've got one individual assessing, you understand why that's the case—but that's three months in someone's life and that's a very, very long time. We have had examples where, if a badge has been stolen or lost or they need to renew it, people often write little notes on their dashboard—because what else do you do in the meantime—and then they'll end up getting tickets or things in the meantime and then there's all the posthumous having to claim back to say, 'No, hang on, we are legitimate blue badge holders'. So, there needs to be something in that process too where, if people find they've had their badge taken away from them or it's accidentally been lost, there needs to be something to capture that group of people. 

Yes, we agree with that. We don't believe that the costs of support should fall on those people who are unfortunate enough to need that support. We think they should be spread across society. 

Okay. Well, thanks for that. One final question, then, and it comes from evidence that Disability Wales gave us, and that is that the image of a wheelchair user on the blue badge sends the wrong message. So, it suggests that it's people in that category that are entitled to blue badges, rather than people with a wide range of conditions. Would you be sympathetic to that view? I think Huw, amongst others, has been suggesting that there could be a much more positive idea of eligibility for blue badges that could be promoted, rather than that rather negative one.

11:20

'Yes' is the short answer to that. I think it, unfortunately, compounds a kind of cultural perception that we have out there in society that it's for people with mobility issues—predominantly people who use wheelchairs or clear visual mobility aids. I think we started off this conversation about the extension to include cognitive impairment and mental health. For the majority of people with cognitive impairment and mental ill health, they wouldn't relate to that image—they don't see it as an image that reflects the conditions they're living with. 

So, in a short frame, yes, it would be good to change the image. The trouble is, when we asked our families and talked about what other image, it became, 'Well, what do you do?', because whatever you use might be a problem.

What was brought forward was whether we actually didn't have an image at all, but we very much owned the colour—the fact that it's blue spaces and a blue pocket. So, it's the concept of a blue badge, but do you need to have any iconography on it at all, in a sense? It's just that you are part of the blue badge community and maybe the parking spaces need to reflect that. It was also pointed out, of course, that you can't just change the badge and then have all of the parking spaces with the logo the same, because we won't change anything.

We're sympathetic. The only thing that occurs is that a lot of work was done for the Paralympics on lots of different symbols for lots of different activities, so that might be a place to have a look.

That's a good idea.

Okay, well, thank you, both—Kate and Valerie—for coming in to give evidence to committee this morning. It's been very useful. You will be sent a transcript to check for factual accuracy. Thank you very much. Committee will break briefly until 11:30.

Gohiriwyd y cyfarfod rhwng 11:22 ac 11:31.

The meeting adjourned between 11:22 and 11:31.

11:30
4. Ymchwiliad i Gynllun y Bathodyn Glas yng Nghymru—Cymhwystra a Gweithredu: Sesiwn Dystiolaeth 4
4. Inquiry into the Blue Badge Scheme in Wales—Eligibility and Implementation: Evidence Session 4

We will move into our fourth evidence session in our inquiry into the blue badge scheme in Wales and eligibility and implementation, and I'm very pleased to welcome Andrew Meredith, customer services team leader for Caerphilly County Borough Council, and Rhys Page, senior business manager for Carmarthenshire County Council. Welcome to you both.

Perhaps I might begin with some initial questions on eligibility criteria and your view on the effect of extending the eligibility criteria to include people with cognitive impairments and temporary conditions.

Okay. Well, certainly in terms of Caerphilly, the cognitive temporary badges only account for a small amount, approximately 3 per cent of the number of badges issued. This resulted in a slight increase in workload for Caerphilly. No extra resources were required. I think, overall, our customers appreciate the extension and see it as a positive move. 

I echo those statements, really. We did about 102 temporary badges last year, which is about 2 per cent to 3 per cent of our badges. The same—I think it's a huge advantage for those people who have temporary conditions, and especially cognitive impairment.

Okay. In that case, if there were suggestions that there might be further extensions to eligibility criteria, would that then not create too much anxiety for you?

I don't think it would create too much anxiety. I think it's just the overall position—how many badges would in circulation in terms of how many spaces would be available? No, overall, I don't think it would create too much anxiety.

It just depends how you would extend that. Spaces can be an issue sometimes, as any other spaces are in public car parks. But I think it's manageable.

In terms of capacity issues for local authorities, is there any regional aspect to those services, or is it all done on an individual local authority level?

It's individual local authority level, in west Wales anyway. I suggest it's probably the same for all of Wales.

The same across Wales, yes.

Okay. We've heard from some stakeholders, such as Disability Wales, that there's a lack of public awareness, in terms of the extension of the scheme. Is that something that you would agree with and, if so, would you have any suggestions as to how we might overcome those problems?

There is a leaflet, which is available—'Who's eligible for a Blue Badge?'. It just briefly mentions 'severe cognitive'. The most detail available is within the guidance for local authorities, which would probably not be the obvious place for customers to look, but there is quite an amount of detail in there. I think we could raise the profile. Maybe we need to do some online information—maybe tv and radio—campaigns, or even get together with some workshops and some communication groups with these organisations, and talk about best practice and things like that at the same time. 

11:35

It's the same, yes. We've got some information on leaflets, guidance and website—on the landing page there's an area for temporary badges. But, yes, definitely, working with the third sector would be advantageous for us to get that message out there, because I don't think it is, as you can see by the 2 or 3 per cent take-up.

So, at the moment, you're not doing a great deal of work with the third sector in that way, are you?

I'd suggest it's patchy—some organisations more than others.

There is some work done, but there's probably more that can be done.

Okay. We heard from Macmillan that local authorities have a discretion to expedite applications when it comes to terminal conditions, but they wondered whether that expedited process should be made mandatory. Could you tell us how you use that expedited process and your views on whether it ought to be mandatory or not?

Okay. In Carmarthenshire it may not be mandatory but it's what we do. Anybody with a terminal illness comes through—they're highlighted and picked up either through our customer service centres or through the core blue badge team. So, we've got a very small core blue badge team, and then we obviously work with our hubs and our customer service centres. Anybody with a terminal illness is what we call 'fast-tracked'. So, they come through, and we hope to get all of those turned around within 24 to 48 hours. So, it's either the next day or the day after at the very latest. So, that's custom and practice for us in Carmarthenshire.

So, you're saying that if it was made mandatory, then, it wouldn't make any difference to you because you—

None at all, no.

Same here. We've got similar processes in Caerphilly as well. It wouldn't make a huge difference to us.

No. Okay, well, thanks for that. We'll move on to the assessment process then and Oscar.

Thank you very much, Chair. Good afternoon—or good morning, sorry.

Good morning.

Can you outline the assessment process used in your area and any recent changes made to this process, please?

Okay. We've got the eligibility criteria, we've got the guidance notes and we've got a checklist, which we provide to all customers. We've obviously got the automatic entitlement. Therefore, we work down from top to bottom. So, anybody with any of the automatic entitlements would just be done on a desktop basis, so we'd work through—the customer service teams would work through the application and issue the badge. Say, for example, somebody was in receipt of the personal independence payment. If they had a walking difficulty, they would go through, if they hadn't met the eligibility criteria—in Carmarthenshire we would arrange an appointment with an assessor. The assessor in Carmarthenshire is an occupational therapist.

We've got a slightly different process to Caerphilly, but Andrew will outline that now. We've also got another section on upper limb disablement; we've got a children's section; terminals, as I've already mentioned; and we've got a cognitive group as well, in addition to the new category of temporary difficulty as well. So, with the temps, we also use an assessor to meet those temporaries as an initial assessment.

Thank you very much. Are you aware of any inconsistencies between your own assessment process and that used by your neighbouring local authorities?

From what we know, in the west Wales region, it's pretty similar.

Neighbouring—so, not that I'm aware of, no.

So, you're not aware. All right. What procedures are in place, either within individual local authorities or at a national level, to ensure that the local authorities apply Welsh Government guidelines consistently?

Right, okay. There is no process I'm aware of with regard to Welsh Government. The local authorities have been given guidelines, which they use. The local authorities have got together on many occasions and discussed better ways of working in order to deal with blue badges, but there's nothing that I'm aware of, with regard to Welsh Government, in terms of checking the local authorities—how they're actually processing the blue badges.

11:40

There's guidance, but there's no process that we are checked on how we deal with the guidance itself.

We follow the guidance that's published via the toolkit. So, we use the toolkit, as you do in Caerphilly. But, as you say, it's that overview, that checking of the procedure. I agree with you, really, I'm not sure how—. It's compliance monitoring I guess you're asking about: are we checked to see if it's compliant with the toolkit? I'd say we're not.

Before you go on, Oscar, Andrew, would you have any views on inconsistency? Because we have heard a lot of evidence that there is considerable inconsistency from one local authority to another. Would you have a view on that?

I think there are some inconsistencies, obviously, based on some local authorities, where the actual service sits. Obviously, sometimes it sits with social services, sometimes it sits within customer services; the amount of resources and the amount of financial implications on each local authority. So, I think there are some inconsistencies across the local authorities, yes.

Thank you, Chair. Do you think it would be desirable to have more consistency?

Yes, I think there probably is some room for improvement, and I think that we probably should work closer, or perhaps set up a working group or a working party between the local authorities in order to look at best practice and things like that as we go along.

Yes, we had a discussion about it, and I think on other subject matters, we do discuss on an all-Wales or regional basis, around best practice, improvement processes. So, again, Carmarthenshire would welcome that.

I don't want to pre-empt the line of questioning that Mark might well come on to later, but in taking forward that consistency to your approach, is that a question just for local authorities to do, or on a regional basis? Would you welcome a rule for that within those organisations out there that represent many people with different types of disabilities and so on? Should they be part of the process to develop that best practice and consistency?

Yes, without a doubt.

Yes, 100 per cent.

Thank you very much. Can you outline the renewal process used in your area and any recent changes made to this process?

We have made some changes in Caerphilly. We've looked at the badges that are due to be renewed within a six to eight-week period. We've piloted a scheme where we actually ring the customers who are due to renew the badge. Obviously, we've got the same system as Carmarthenshire, where, originally, they were coming to the office for their first badge. We know them, we've seen them before; we've got an idea of their medical condition. A lot of these medical conditions worsen over time, so we took the decision to ring some of these customers in order to renew the badges, subject to evidence over the telephone. That has been very popular within Caerphilly. When you ring someone instead of asking them to come in for an appointment, you ring them on the phone, speak to them, just have a quick discussion about their previous badge, whether there have been any changes—things like that. That's been a very positive move within Caerphilly.

That's irrespective of the condition, then, Andrew, is it? That's for—.

There are some factors we take into account. Obviously, the most important, I think, is the condition, whether it is likely to probably deteriorate in future, and the fact that we've already seen them before with that medical condition.

In Carmarthenshire, it is a reapplication process. We've talked a lot about having a look at how we can streamline that in Carmarthenshire. So, I think there's a bit of room for us to improve that, but we do—on the basis of what Andrew just said—look at the reasons for the first application, and then, if it is a permanent badge, we take one route of reissuing, where, if it was a temporary, we'd see them again because there may be a change to the condition. They may have improved, or they may have also worsened as well, so they need a permanent badge at that point.

11:45

And with the permanent badges, then, Rhys, would you look at the particular condition to see whether there was much likelihood of change or not, and make it an easier, then, renewal process for people in that situation, of the condition being very unlikely to improve?

Yes. With permanent badges, it's on the grounds of, 'We need to make sure that there are checks around address changes et cetera', and those sorts of things, rather than the medical side, because those people would have been assessed initially, and if they've got a long-term disablement, we wouldn't revisit that area. 

It doesn't make any sense for us to do that. 

Yes. You referred to, subject to evidence, I think, fast-tracking people with deteriorating conditions, but we heard earlier about people with hidden impairments, and autism has been referred to many times, which, of course, is a lifelong condition—people don't stop being autistic. How would you consider those in these circumstances, where evidence of, perhaps, a diagnosis many years before might be the only thing that's available?

Again, we'd use a similar process. We'd actually speak to the—sometimes it's the parents of a child, say, with autism, find out what's happened since the last badge was issued: has there been any improvement or any deterioration? If they've got any further medical evidence—. They might not. If they're under a consultant, we'll ask for information if they have that, but I think that the underlying factor is whether that condition is likely to deteriorate in future once we've seen them the first time. 

Because the evidence we heard earlier—the problem with that is that autism is who the person is—it's who they're born as and who they will be all their lives. It's not like a degenerative or progressive condition. So, it's likely that if they were eligible once, they're going to continue to be the same person they were previously. How do you factor that in? Because I have casework and I hear of examples chairing relevant cross-party groups on autism and disability where local authorities—I won't name them—have treated, perhaps, autistic people in the same way as somebody with a progressive neurological condition in terms of the evidential base, which causes huge problems. 

Right, okay—[Inaudible.]

I guess we try and use—. As I mentioned earlier, we've got an occupational therapist medical model and has access to information from consultants et cetera. So, we try and, I guess, get that evidence base right at the start and we try not to put people through unnecessary reassessment where possible, but it does depend on—. I would have hoped that we're not one of those local authorities, and, hopefully, we would have done it right the first time. 

Thank you very much, Chair. [Inaudible.]—from my point now. When people get these blue badges, they get certain criteria, and they should have a line in front of their terraced house where there's disabled parking, but it's not necessarily everybody who gets that white line in front of their house—any different criteria for that?

Disabled parking—it's a difficult one, I think. 

Because I've got complaints in my constituency office. People have blue badges, but they haven't got a space in front of their own house.

Haven't got a space outside their house, yes—.

I would say the vast majority of people won't have those spaces. I would have thought it would have been more people who would not have had a space than have a space. I'd have to refer that to the transport section for that guidance. 

Okay, thanks for that. Okay. Could you start on the question of the social model of disability, Leanne?

Yes. Gwynedd Council provided evidence to us that suggests that the current assessment process follows the medical model of disability as opposed to the social model of disability. Do you have a view on that at all?

11:50

It's quite an interesting one, this one. We've had a few conversations about this one. The guidance issued by Welsh Government says that it supports the social model. However, the legislation behind the blue badge system is obviously—there are a lot of medical terms in there. I can see it from both ways. It says, again, in the guidance that all discretionary cases should be treated on the applicant's difficulty in walking, which includes things like posture, rhythm, co-ordination and every thing else, and that to me would point towards the medical model. However, there's other information there that says that each blue badge should be treated on a case-by-case basis and should correctly identify people who require a badge to overcome the barriers they face in accessing services. Again, I think that's more towards the social model.

Which has precedence, then? We've heard from previous witnesses that many people present with hidden disabilities. Obviously, the social model is more conducive to people in that situation. Would you say that one takes precedence over the other?

I wouldn't, no, certainly not in Caerphilly.

We try and balance it. Like I said, the guidance will tell you—it's got different areas there. It's a little bit grey, I would say. And, unfortunately, there's no guidance on common sense, sometimes, which needs to be in there, I think. You've got to use your common sense sometimes with—

So, if there is contradictory guidance from different sources, you just have to try and apply whatever's sensible, then, yes?